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(photo credit: Associated Press)
The tide of outrage over Sheikh Raed Salah's controversial speech at Haifa University last month has more or less subsided. But the university's chairman, American-Zionist activist and entrepreneur Leon Charney, told The Jerusalem Post this week that he had personally come under fire for the incident, and wanted to make it clear that while his institution was committed to maintaining academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, those ideals came with limitations.
"It must be emphatically understood that we are an Israeli university committed to Jewish values," Charney said. "And we should never allow anyone who is a racist, or someone who espouses violence to speak on our campus. Freedom of speech doesn't allow you to scream fire in the theater."
The controversy surrounding the university began on June 17, when Salah, who leads the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, addressed a Muslim student group that had invited him to the campus, and claimed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was hatching nefarious plans to tunnel under the Temple Mount and eventually rebuild a third Jewish temple there.
"We love life, our families, our homes and our children," Salah said during his speech. "But if they suggest that we give up our principles and holy sites, we would rather die and we welcome death!"
Students in the auditorium at the time replied to Salah's statement with boisterous cheers of "Allahu Akbar!", which caused Jewish protesters gathered outside - who had been prohibited from entering the auditorium due to fears of violence - to clash with security officers at the scene.
But the fallout after Salah's appearance included additional protests by student groups and an eventual hearing on the matter during a Knesset Education Meeting last month, in which committee head MK Zevulun Orlev (The Jewish Home) admonished university officials for allowing Salah to speak.
On Wednesday, Charney reiterated what university officials had said in June, namely, that the university did not want Salah to speak, but that the university's legal adviser had made it clear that if they had barred the sheikh from speaking, the university would have been taken to court, and would have lost the case.
"But I think we should have gone to court and lost," Charney added. "Because at least that way, we would have aired the issue."
Charney, who was a layer before becoming involved in politics and real estate, also said that if the issue had been taken to court, it would have forced the legal system to better define the limitations of freedom of speech on campus - a positive development, he said, as the universities were not capable of making the decision on their own.
"This is a very important issue, not just for the academic world, but for the State of Israel," he said. "And the judicial system has to be the one to handle it, because it's nearly impossible for university officials to find that balance."
In that vein, Charney also said he believed the limitations on freedom of speech should be different in Israel than on an American university, as the reality here calls for more sensitivity against the backdrop of the deep hostilities that exist in the region.
"Maybe an Islamic radical could speak at a campus in the US, which has two oceans between it and the rest of the world," Charney said. "But I think that there would be more limitations in Israel because the country is too small, and is involved in day to day wars. Here, you have to be more careful - the environment of the country needs to be taken into account when determining how far freedom of speech can go."
Charney also stressed he valued the university's Arab students - some 20 percent of the student body - and appreciated the example his university was able to set for the country.
"Haifa University is a model of coexistence," he said. "The dean of research is an Israeli-Arab, and I think we are an important vehicle for the State of Israel to show that we can coexist. But again, there are limits to everything."
On that note Charney added that after the Salah controversy, he had been assailed by angry e-mails from university donors and others who accused the university of becoming a bastion of Islamist radicalism.
"Some people only read the headlines," he said. "And I think there was a misunderstanding, especially over the issue with the Jewish protesters not being allowed in the auditorium because they were Jewish - this was not the case."
"But I've been the chairman of the university for two years, and I've never received more e-mails over a single issue than this one," Charney continued. "It's a good test case for Israeli democracy, but as chairman I have a duty to protect my university, and I think there is a wrong impression out there which I want to correct. We are an Israeli university, and by osmosis, that makes us a Jewish university. If someone wants to respectfully say something about Israeli policies, they can do that, but they cannot be allowed to cross the line and preach values of hate and racism."